Every now and then, I encounter something written (usually online) that is so blatantly idiotic and offensive that, upon brief consideration of it as a topic for The Heretic Loremaster, I shrug my shoulders and move on because, given the people who read here, it would be preaching to the choir and not likely to generate much discussion beyond high-fiving as we nod emphatically in agreement with each other. But, this time, I can’t resist. For one, this guy is so blatantly idiotic and offensive that I can’t let him squeak by without giving an answer. For another, it’s been a busy week at school, I’m too tired to take on someone worth the argument, and I feel like cutting my teeth a little, so here goes.
Josh Tyler has written a post called We Don’t Need More Female Superheroes. (Thanks to Sinneahtes for first spotting it and to Juno Magic for the heads up!) This post was in response to a post by Thera Pitts that deconstructed the female characters in recent superhero movies, coming to the conclusion that women tend to be “characterized” toward the negative extreme of whatever role they occupy. “Did you ever stop to think that it isn’t just the actresses who sully your favorite movies but the comic book movie industry’s lazy attitude towards women characters in general?” asks Pitts. “The actress is only as good as her material, and the material is seriously lacking.” She notes that women overwhelmingly tend to be characterized as helpless victims in need of rescue, “moody emo-bitch[es],” or as the fateful She Who Ruins All by tempting, betraying, or distracting the hero unto his ultimate doom.
This is an insightful observation, and it echoes a broader trend across centuries of legend and literature. No matter what a female character’s role, she is shoved to the most negative extremes of that role. If she is strong and autonomous, then she becomes a bitch, a ball-breaker, a man-hater. If she is kind and compassionate, then she becomes weak; she is overwhelmingly the victim incapable of helping herself; she is the one who trips on a flat stretch of land and can’t do more than squeal and kick futilely as she is raped/murdered/abducted by her stronger male attacker. And then there’s the Eve effect: Women who, through their failings, bring about the destruction of the male hero, the kingdom, the world. From the rise of pre-Christian patriarchy, these one-dimensional negative archetypes have been women’s lot in literary life (for tempting Adam to the apple, of course). These archetypes are old enough to put the Old Testament on the New Releases shelf, and even as literary styles changed drastically over the centuries, this one thing did not. Women, when not being marginalized or ignored entirely, were maligned in literature, a trend that has extended to film as well.
Of course, when women done went and got uppity and started to complain about their shallow, scathing treatment in literature, men got all pie-eyed and innocent-like because it was only fair! It was only reality! It’s just the way that women were/are! They (the wise male authors) were being true to their subjects! And, anyway, what woman wants to read that ol’ fusty Tennyson when Danielle Steele has a new novel on the bestsellers list?
This is where Tyler’s post comes in. Rather than tackle Pitts’ argument (which is one of characterization and fair treatment in fiction to, oh, more than half of the human race), he attempts to nullify it altogether by … well, I don’t think I can paraphrase it well enough to capture the full wow-factor of Tyler’s words, so I’ll let him dig his own grave:
Men and women simply have different interests. Men are interested in action movies with heroes blowing things up and saving the girl. Men are interested in imagining themselves as ass-kicking heroes. Women are interested in movies about relationships and romance and love. Women are interested in imagining themselves finding the right guy and dancing till dawn. Little boys play with guns, little girls play with dolls. Neither version of play is superior to the other, it’s just different. Nobody is out there trying to force men to get interested in movies about romantic weekends in Paris, so why are we so dead set on forcing women to get interested in movies about beating people up? There’s something unintentionally sexist about it, it’s as if we’re saying women’s interests are somehow inherently inferior, and to be validated they must instead find ways to be more like men.
In the comments on this post, there is much hand-raising from women who did not spend their childhoods wiping the plastic asses of doll-babies but rather careened around the backyard on fantastic quests, using exhausted wrapping-paper rolls for swords and wearing bathrobes for ceremonial robes and converting a quarter-acre swatch of trees into a dark, deep, ominous forest as full of potential for danger and adventure as it was for conquest and reward. Okay … that was my sister and me. But I don’t think I need to go thrusting my hand into the air for playing Hero more than House, and I don’t think I need to poll the women reading here to know that far more of you got together with girlfriends, sisters, and cousins to go battling the hordes of dark minions in your backyard than to play princess tea party in order to prove or validate women’s interest in subjects beyond boy-meets-girl love stories culminating in domestic bliss.
Nor do I need to ask how many women here got far more excited this summer over the release of Prince Caspian or The Dark Knight than Sex in the City or Mamma Mia!.
Of course, this does not make stereotypically “women’s movies” or “women’s interests” inferior. In that sense, I agree with Tyler. But … I think his self-righteous defense of the fairer sex is a straw man bigger than the one in which Nicholas Cage was torched by a bunch of misbehavin’ womenfolk back in 2006. Hollywood doesn’t have a problem making the sorts of movies that Tyler believes serves the “female interest.” In any given week, there is a romantic comedy or somesuch in theatres that is aimed at women. Nor do women have problems going to these movies, if that’s their thing. Witness Bride Wars‘ quick ascendency to the #2 spot in U.S. box-office sales this weekend. Witness the fact that men being “dragged” to “chick flicks” by their excited wives and girlfriends is perennial fodder on primetime sitcoms. Tyler makes it out like Sex in the City was a come-from-behind indy flick and Hollywood reject, or as though there are lines of people pegging tomatoes at women as they walk into Nights in Rodanthe. Not hardly. In our family, the lists of new movie releases are, weekly, the source of first excitement, then scrutiny, then inevitable disappointment because neither my husband nor I are interested in this sort of movie, and they often seem to crowd out the independent and limited-release films that rarely make it as far as our rural corner of the world. Trust me, there is never a dearth of chick flicks, which means that there is no dearth of women lining up to see them. If it doesn’t sell, Hollywood doesn’t keep making it. (Which–as in the constant peltering of Friedberg & Seltzer spoof flicks–can often act as a sorry commentary on the state of our species.)
Nice try, Tyler. Pardon me if I’m writing this blog post instead of getting signs painted to march on the Mall this weekend in recognition of women’s unalienable right to see chick flicks or in defense of the women “forced” to see “movies about beating people up,” an issue that surely deserves its place right alongside my outrage at sex slavery. This feminist finds it far more frightening that, in the year 2009, anyone seriously makes the argument that one’s interests even tend to divide neatly along the same lines as the possession or lack of a Y-chromosome.
This kind of thinking–not arguing for more female superheroes in movies–is what is sexist and offensive.
It has nothing to do with validating women’s interests by how closely they fall to the interests of men. It has everything to do with perpetuating stereotypes that have, for centuries, been used to dismiss and subjugate women as inferiors to men. In the comments to Tyler’s post, a few people expressed outrage at his generalization about how girls play with dolls. He retorted by asking, where was the outrage for the little boys pigeonholed into violent gun play? And I’ll be the first to speak out against stereotypes, whether against males or females. But the stereotyping of women is more dangerous. It is more offensive. Why? Because the stereotyping of men and the interests of men is not used to excuse the subjection of men to women’s benefit.
(In fact, I must speak out against offensiveness in this post that goes beyond that which affects me as a woman:
Of course some women actually are interested in superheroes, just as there are guys out there who are really into touchy-feely musicals. Most of them are British, but even here in America you’ll occasionally run into a guy with a twisted love of Mamma Mia!.
As an American, I despise when my culture and language is thought automatically inferior because of stereotypes like the ones that Tyler is embracing here. For the love of all things heretical, stop with the chest-thumping, my-balls-swing-harder-than-yours nasty rhetoric implying that British/European men are less “manly” than we red-blooded, steak-eatin’, pickup-truck-drivin’ ‘Mericans because we like seeing things blow up more. It is “twisted” to enjoy a musical more than an action movie if you are a man. Veiled homophobia much?)
Inherent in Tyler’s argument is the assumption that women are predetermined to be softer, gentler, and more nurturing. They are incapable of strength, assertiveness, or competitiveness. This has been used to keep women illiterate, ignorant, without the vote, without rights, under the thumbs of their fathers, under the thumbs of their husbands, stuck in the home, barefoot and pregnant, married against their wills, out of schools, out of jobs … need I go on? Do you see, Mr. Tyler, why your opinions on female superheroes are so offensive? Why recognize the spectacular range of human interests–i.e., not confined to or deemed acceptable for one gender or another–when we can pigeonhole people tidily into interests based on what is most acceptable to the dominant patriarchal culture?
Ironically, Tyler’s argument ties back into the root cause of the phenomenon that Pitts’ observed in her post. Women have been maligned and misunderstood in literature–which now extends to that which is written for the screen–for a very, very long time now using arguments just like those that Tyler uses to dismiss a woman’s demand for better-written female characters. Women deserve no better than to be sluts, bitches, poisoners, traitors, witches, victims, and agents of downfall and destruction because we all know–as Tyler points out to us–that this is simply the way that women are. It is against our own best interests when we dare to argue otherwise. Thank you, Mr. Tyler, for the enlightenment.